Christina Cantrill, National Writing Project

The stories and examples of classroom practice in this book were originally shared on Digital Is, a National Writing Project web site. That site and this book start from the argument that, in an increasingly interconnected and networked world, digital is how we write, share, collaborate, publish, and participate today and in the future.

As with any argument, the opportunity arises to push, to question, and to consider, which is what we can see the educators in this collection doing. They are not necessarily accepting that “digital is” at face value, but rather engaging with this idea as a source of inquiry, exploration, and research. If digital is the way the world is today, what does that mean for learning? And for teaching?

This is why, as Antero Garcia tells us, there are more than “best practices” here. There are important practices and effective-in-their-context practices, as well as “there is a kernel of truth here, but maybe we will approach it differently next time” practices. These are active practices, practices that require opportunities to test, to tinker, to innovate, and to dynamically assess and reiterate.

As the curators of this book also highlight for us, these are not simply random practices. They are propelled by a changing social and technological landscape. They have been shared in open online spaces among other educators. They are individual and/or classroom vignettes that also are available to be remixed or remade in other people’s classrooms and contexts. Set next to each other, juxtaposed within a larger web collection or in an edited volume like this book, these practices become greater than the sum of their parts. We can see trends and the connected principles that cut across and through.

Communities of practice, such as the National Writing Project (NWP), have been working like this for years, long before digital curation and sharing was even a possibility. Opening our practices up for examination by ourselves and others is a common way of working that has developed over time, facilitated through the act of writing and actively making our work visible to each other. These social and participatory practices of composing, sharing, and juxtaposing have, over time, allowed the NWP to support a continually growing set of educators to both deepen and innovate their own work and practices (Lieberman and Wood 2002; McDonald, Buchanan, and Sterling 2004; DeVoss, Eidman-Aadahl, and Hicks 2010).

Now in a digitally mediated era, our network continues to expand and innovate through the various digital modes and social media available today—opportunities that constantly introduce new ways of thinking and, therefore, slowly change and shift the ways that we define and describe ourselves as networked communities of practice. Online environments such as Digital Is are just one of the ways we’ve been reimagining our connections. Our collective thinking is pushed as, for example, the Digital Is collection increasingly includes the digital literacy practices not only of formal in-school educators, but also of informal educators and teaching artists outside of school. This shift mirrors what is happening within our face-to-face communities too; we have learned that literacy and connected learning requires a much larger and more diverse community.

These explorations have also uncovered another deep and critical element amplified when networked, digitally mediated economies form—that knowledge is located everywhere and not in the hands of a select few. Certainly, content that has been created by those who are formally deemed individual experts in their field, whether in education or elsewhere, is important to increase access to for all learners, which now is even more possible in a digital and networked age and should happen. But we also know that non-expert knowledge and the variety of knowledge that learners bring to their learning journeys—at whatever age—can be a game-changer even in established fields and disciplines. Projects such as:

YOUMedia: Teen learning spaces located in public centers such as libraries and museums, where youth explore, express, and create using digital media;

Quest to Learn: First established as a public school in New York City, Q2L schools bring together students, educators, game designers, curriculum specialists, and parents to develop a “game-like” curriculum and learning environment;

Enquiring Minds: An approach to curriculum development, and a set of related resources, based in the UK;

Youth Voices: An open online school-based social network for youth; and

Hackademia: A learning group at the University of Washington that introduces mostly non-technical students to basic technical skills within an open-ended challenge are all learning environments designed specifically to tap into those knowledge bases by leveraging learner interests and creative production, while simultaneously networking and connecting learners with wider circles of experience and expertise.

In traditional education and educational institutions, this process does change the game. As educator Ben Williamson points out, networked tools and new technology give us—teachers and learners alike—the unprecedented ability to position ourselves “as authors and editors of curricular content based on [our] own authentic cultures and patterns of participation” (Williamson 2011). No longer is the teacher the only conveyor, the library the only holder, or the museum the only curator of knowledge. Instead the ability to convey, to hold, and to curate now is in the hands of many. This also is why the social and participatory framework of connected learning positions all learners, students, and teachers alike not only as consumers, but as makers.

As the authors of Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design warn, however, “[w]ithout a proactive educational reform agenda that begins with questions of equity, leverages both in-school and out-of-school learning, and embraces the opportunities new media offer for learning, we risk a growth in educational alienation by our most vulnerable populations” (Ito et al. 2013:7). If the power to create and to connect is critical to establishing equity in our classrooms, learning environments, and society at large, then we, as educators, have an amazing opportunity, as well as an imperative, to lead. This leadership depends on tapping into our deep wells of historically important and longstanding pedagogical knowledge and experience while pushing to expand our understandings and visions for what it means to learn and to teach today.

Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom and Digital Is are intended to contribute to our individual and collective capacity building through providing points of inquiry and exploration. And we invite your continued participation.


Student Identities and Passions as Gateways to Connected Learning

Nicole Mirra, University of California, Los Angeles

“Questioning why the schools in Los Angeles continue to receive only a small portion of billions of dollars is our duty. We need to research how the budget works and how we can direct more of the money coming in to the state toward urban education. Every single person should join this movement and make demands for the resources that we, urban youth, deserve. Because we need the opportunity to show the difference we can make in this world.”

– Peter, 16 years old

This quote from Peter, an eleventh grader from South Central Los Angeles, offers a powerful portrait of a young man who embodies the kinds of academic, social, and civic outcomes that parents, educators, and policymakers desire for all children – sophisticated analysis of a complex social issue, ability to jumpstart community dialogue, and commitment to informed and empowered public action. In this chapter, I argue that young people can best access these crucial outcomes when they are presented with opportunities to engage in what the Connected Learning report dubs interest-driven learning, a concept based in the seemingly common-sense notion that students will gain more knowledge and skills at higher levels of intellectual rigor when their learning originates from issues or activities that innately captivate them.

Sadly, in an era of hyper-standardization and “racing to the top,” commitment to this vision of learning is anything but common. Education in both formal and informal learning spaces seems less and less about meeting young people where they are as developing thinkers and more and more about forcibly transmitting into their minds enormous bodies of information that adults have deemed important for college and career readiness. The idea of developing learning experiences based on the interests of young people sounds strangely quaint in this educational context—a decadent “extra” that is shunted perhaps into extracurricular time, but more likely relegated to students’ personal hours.

Nevertheless, I maintain that the power and possibility of tapping into students’ passions are undeniable, particularly for students who often feel invisible or marginalized in mainstream educational discourse. Peter made the comment above in a scene from a digital documentary that he created as part of the Council of Youth Research, a university-school partnership program that engages young people across Los Angeles in researching issues that matter to them and taking action on their findings with the help of social media. Because of his interest in the lack of physical resources at his school in South Los Angeles, Peter was motivated to research state education financing and budgeting, gaining academic math and literacy skills in the process. He also came to identify as a researcher through this work, realizing the power of his voice and of being part of a community of youth striving for social justice. Finally, this work led him to see himself and his peers as powerful civic actors capable (and responsible for) making a difference in the world.

In keeping with the connected learning principles of participation, equity, and social connection, this interest-driven program connected Peter to a community of adults and peers who shared and supported his interest in school conditions; invited him to participate in shared experiences with others through both in-person and online interactions regarding his interest; and promoted equity not only through the research content on disparities in school funding, but also through his elevation to the status of a researcher on par with any adult expert.

Most educators understand instinctively the premise behind interest-driven learning—that young people are much more willing and eager to struggle with difficult academic concepts and skills if they are couched within topics or activities that get them fired up. This premise is grounded in sociocultural learning theory, which stresses that learning is not something that occurs at the level of the individual, but in the context of social interaction with others within a particular cultural and historical milieu (Vygotsky 1978). Sociocultural learning theorists argue that within all social interactions, learning is occurring at multiple, mutually constitutive levels—the personal, interpersonal, and institutional—and that this learning can be analyzed best as a process of shared activity (Rogoff 2003). In the case of connected learning, this shared activity is mediated through the use of technology, a uniquely powerful tool for amplifying and disseminating youth voice.

Despite this understanding of student interests, however, many educators continue to see them as diversions to help engage students in more “serious” content rather than crucial subjects of study in their own right. I argue that learning is inextricably linked to our identities and our relationships to others in our communities, and therefore, the interests that are explored in interest-driven learning represent much more than mere hobbies. Instead, they are integral elements of our identities that—when respected by educators as serious attempts to understand, grapple with, and take action in our world—have transformative educational and social power.

The three narratives in this section highlight the work of thoughtful, committed educators who offer honest and insightful depictions of the benefits and challenges of integrating interest-driven learning into formal and informal educational spaces. Christopher Working describes how his third-grade students’ classroom adventures in blogging demonstrated the power of authentic writing. Chuck Jurich reminds us of the multimodal nature of writing in his analysis of an after-school filmmaking club for fourth- and fifth-grade students. And Meenoo Rami explores the counter-storytelling in which her high-school students engaged during English class to break down media stereotypes of young people.

These narratives remind us that children are complex beings who are not simply interested in childish things; instead, they are citizens in the making who offer sophisticated observations and critiques of the inequalities and injustices around them that educators need to honor and build upon. We have an urgent need to utilize students’ voices and interests in order to help them develop expertise and agency. Interest-driven learning serves as a gateway to the other connected learning principles. Once a fire is lit under students, they easily pursue further opportunities to support peers, find shared purpose, network and produce with others, and connect their passions to academic achievement.

Interest-Driven Composition: Using Social Media in a Writing Workshop

Christopher Working, Red Cedar Writing Project

It was an ordinary day during writing workshop, and as I was conferring with a third-grade student, Jumaane walked up beside me, a tattered paperback book in hand.

“Mr. Working, I’m trying to do a lead for my story like the one in this book, but I don’t get it.”

“I can show him!” Yuliana chimed in from across the group of desks, even before I had a chance to respond. I smiled and watched as Yuliana rushed back to Jumaane’s desk and pulled a chair up alongside him.

When it came time for sharing, Jumaane proudly offered up his newly created lead with the class, an enormous smile plastered across his face. It struck me then: Yuliana was able to help improve Jumaane’s writing, and neither of them could have been more pleased. Both students were highly motived to improve the quality of Jumaane’s story.

Eight-year-olds like to share things. They might not know where their homework is or what happened to their other gym shoe, but they will never leave at home that smooth rock their grandma gave them two years ago, their soccer participation trophy, or that tooth they found in their backyard. I wanted to determine if giving students an opportunity to share their personal interests in school could transfer to academic growth.

In the age of social media, I was curious how technology could build upon this natural interest in social connection in the classroom. Building upon my experiences in digital writing with the National Writing Project, a teacher inquiry project seemed to be a natural next step. I wanted not only to find out if social media could help leverage the power of social interaction in an academic setting, but also I wanted to see how this interaction impacted the learning process. Does interacting with peers affect the way a student engages with the writing process? Does it build upon the power of student interest?

I rolled up my sleeves and got busy creating a teacher inquiry project. I wanted to create a social media experience where students would compose interest-driven pieces of writing and then share the writing with their classmates. Considering my needs as a facilitator, the needs of my students, and the policies of my school, I ended up selecting a platform that met all of my basic requirements: While the tool wasn’t perfect and there were many things I wished I could change, I reminded myself that it wasn’t about the tool; it was about what I was hoping the tool would help kids do—write for and share with an authentic audience.

When I first started this inquiry project, I was teaching at a Title I school where more than 80 percent of students qualified for the free and reduced meal program (Title I is a federal program that provides additional funding to schools that serve children from low-income families). The majority of students came from a home where they did not have Internet access or a computer. For many of my students, their only access to the Internet was at school. A majority of the students in my class were English Language Learners, speaking Spanish, Lao, or Russian at home. Even if the parents had the access and the technological ability to help their child with sharing online, more than half of the parents did not speak or read English.

Although many of the families in my class did not have a computer with Internet access at home, many of my students had older siblings who had their own smartphone with Internet access. During parent-teacher conferences, I would often see the siblings busily writing on their phones, which reinforced my contention that kids want to share their writing. It also justified the need for using social media as a means to facilitate the sharing. I wanted to introduce carefully the pathway for students to share their interests in a way that also layered in a sense of digital citizenship, which, for me, is the idea that technology can be used as a tool to facilitate young people’s participation in dialogue, writing, and action on social issues about which they care—not simply for the purely recreational uses that adults often assume are the sole interest of youth. More and more, young people can find outlets online for expressing their developing identities as citizens, and I wanted to guide my students toward that exploration through blogging.

An advantage of using blogging is the opportunity for students to choose their own writing topics. As students composed for their blog, they often had a real audience in mind, which encouraged them to invest more of their energy into considering the interests of that audience. When the students were choosing writing topics, this consideration for peer interest resulted in students considering their own interests. They were less worried about what they thought the teacher wanted and more interested in writing an interesting piece that would capture the attention of their classmates.

In our social media-based digital writing workshop, students learned several different topic-generating strategies that mirrored the strategies learned during the traditional paper-and-pencil writing workshop. For example, a student might think about an important place in her life, then choose an interesting memory that occurred at that place. In Yuliana’s case, she selected Michigan’s Adventure amusement park as a place of significance in her life. She started out writing the story of riding her favorite ride, sharing the experience as a focused, small moment.

Yuliana quickly realized a powerful feature of composing in a digital space: She requested peer feedback as she composed. As she wrote, she paid close attention to the comments her peers were leaving her. Due to this feedback, she decided to continue adding multiple small stories about her trip to Michigan’s Adventure.

At first, the quality of writing was disappointing, and the comments were sparse and not very helpful. Also, watching eight-year-olds trying to touch type was painful. Many students would spend the entire time working and only type eight words. I realized that this struggle underscored the need for this type of work. I was also encouraged by the attitudes students had toward these struggles. They were motivated. Since they needed to use word processing as a mode for connecting with peers to share writing, students wanted to increase their typing skills.

Unexpected needs began to surface. Basic keyboarding skills, such as inserting text and basic punctuation, needed to be addressed. We learned that two apostrophes do not equal one quotation mark, that a space is needed after a period, and that Microsoft Word does not always understand proper nouns and your grammatical choices.

In my school district, students attend a technology class once per week. Part of the district technology curriculum involves touch-typing and word processing rates. Without intending to do so, my blogging project created an opportunity for a natural experiment on the subject. The technology teacher pointed out to me that the typing rates of my class were considerably higher than the other third-grade classes. By simply using a computer to write and share pieces of writing based on personal interests, my class was word processing, on average, more than twice as fast as their third-grade peers.

Writing about their interests for an authentic audience changed the way students composed. While working on their chosen piece, many students started paying close attention to feedback they received from peers. This feedback often helped them decide if they should continue working on the writing or if they should move on to a new piece. Evidence began to surface that showed students were making direct changes and improvement in their writing based solely upon peer suggestions. A peer would ask a question in the comments, and students would use color to indicate revisions based upon the comment. Students were more collaborative, and new leaders began to appear, like Yuliana, brimming with a newfound self-confidence as a writer.

Two years after this inquiry project, I was fortunate enough to receive support from the NWP to spend a day with these students in their fifth-grade classrooms. While the students I interviewed only remembered a few pieces of writing at most, all of the students remembered how this process made them feel. I asked Yuliana how writing stories on Kidblog and having classmates comment on her writing was different. She reflected on how exciting it was to have many people reading her writing, giving her tips, and asking her questions. When asked if she thought she could write the same way without doing it online, she responded by saying, “Nope. No kids are reading it, so why should I keep writing it? Maybe it’s boring for them. Why should I keep writing it?”

Before this inquiry project, a trip to the computer lab often meant several hands in the air while I ran around trying to troubleshoot all of the problems. Students were taking a passive role and were hoping I would fix everything for them. However, when students were given the opportunity to write for an authentic audience around topics of interest, my job became easier. Students stopped wanting me to fix problems for them. Instead, kids were helping each other, both online and in person. They were excited to help and to be helped.

Posts became more refined, and volume of writing increased dramatically as students became more comfortable with their typing skills. Students naturally started each day checking for comments. Quality of responses began to improve, as did the quality of the pieces of writing. Eventually, responses started to become more substantive and helpful, giving specific suggestions or asking thoughtful questions.

I had never seen this level of participation before. Students were learning because they wanted to learn. Students were identifying what they needed to learn. What’s more, they were seeking out this new learning from newly established social networks. Participating in a learning process that embraced student interests caused this group of third-grade students to take an active role in their own learning.

Reflecting on the project, I realized that I probably learned more than any of my students. I realized that I needed to broaden my idea of how social media could provide students with improved social interaction. Originally, I had envisioned deep social connections within the digital space being forged as kids worked independently on computers both at school and at home. But, I hadn’t expected the dramatic increase in social interaction in face-to-face settings, as students responded to content created in social media. It became a hybrid of online and in-person social networking, built around the process of writing.

Writing is a deeply personal process, and most writing is meant to be read. Since this initial inquiry project, a common idea that many of my third-grade students expressed was the desire to have their writing read and for classmates to discuss their piece of writing to help make it better. Social media expedite this process in a way that taps into student interests while decreasing the anxiety of having to stand in front of a group of people and read the piece aloud.

Will I try things differently next time? Absolutely. But, I won’t worry about making it perfect. So much of what was accomplished as a class came from the journey of overcoming challenges and adapting to wrong turns and failed attempts. In the end, although using social media became entirely more work than I could have ever anticipated, I also felt the payoff was greater than I had hoped. Not only did student writing improve, but so did motivation, self-confidence, collaboration, digital citizenship, classroom citizenship, and value placed in the written expression of lived experiences.

Link to Digital Is Resource:

“Happy Music, Happy Music”: Embracing Non-Standardized Writing Processes in Video-Making

Chuck Jurich, High Desert Writing Project

“Happy music, happy music, happy music . . . and . . . STOP! . . . Now I want deep music.”

These were the opening instructions given to me in order to create an original music score for Ruth Wakefield, a silent black-and-white video about the invention of the chocolate chip cookie. I had never created music for visuals before, and Ariel (all names are pseudonyms), a fourth-grade student who wrote, directed, and edited Ruth Wakefield, had not either. The two of us were making it all up, figuring out a process by doing it, and discovering and inventing techniques, such as creating “themes” and motifs (“now switch back to happy music”), that would eventually become part of our future workflows.

In this narrative, I examine the student production Ruth Wakefield as an example of how multiple authors with a shared purpose innovate and adapt video-making writing processes to meet the needs of their project. In production-centered activities such as video-making, everyone’s participation matters. I make the case that the organic, interest-driven, and socially connected writing that occurred in the making of Ruth Wakefield challenges the notion that writing should be reduced to a formulaic series of steps or taught as a standardized process.

An after-school video club

Ruth Wakefield was one of many student-made videos collaboratively composed at the Midway Elementary After-School Video Club. Open to fourth- and fifth-grade students, the club met directly after school twice a week for approximately 90 minutes. Due to space and supervision requirements, the club was limited to 20 students, and there was an application to join that inquired about students’ interests, motivation to make videos, commitment, and ability to work well with others. Many of the fourth graders reapplied in fifth grade, becoming knowledgeable experts to help newcomers along. There was no official curriculum, and students learned how to make videos “on the job” and how to perform roles and use tools in a “just in time” and on a “need to know” basis (Gee 2007). Once they knew how to do a task, such as operate a camera or edit a video, they were expected to teach other club members as needed.

What initially led me to video-making was an interest in teaching my elementary-aged students the basics of media literacy. In 2006, I was teaching fifth grade, and my students and I were learning to critically view commercials that targeted children. Soon we began to dabble in making our own commercials—writing short, 3 to 5 shot scripts, shooting video, and editing the shots. At the time, I had a protectionist approach to media literacy (Buckingham 2003) and didn’t understand the power and agency that comes with naming the world (Freire 1970) through words, images, sound, and gesture. This supplemental use of video in the classroom was interesting but clearly teacher-directed, as I chose the topics, organized the production crews, and gave specific requirements for their work. The following school year (2007), I created the after-school video club so students could explore video-making beyond the confines of school assignments. In the club, students were free to create the videos they wanted to make for an audience of their choosing (usually their peers). Students did all the work, including scriptwriting, shooting, and editing. This environment led to a much more equitable “horizontal” relationship between students and teachers: Students took on significant roles like “director,” “scriptwriter,” “editor,” and “actor,” while teachers were there to provide support for the productions as “producers.” Sometimes, such as in Ruth Wakefield, adults performed additional roles but under the guidance of a student director.

Flexible writing processes that fit the project

When teachers heard about our video club or viewed student work, one of the first things they asked was how they could do it. In particular, teachers wanted a series of steps and a list of equipment needed. Video-making certainly has structure—such as stages of production (pre-production, production, post-production, and distribution), specialized tools (video cameras and video-editing software), and specific roles (director, actor, and editor)—but I resist recommending any rigid process. The video-making process can appear linear, but it is not. In our video club, protocols (established ways of doing things) at each stage of production were regularly revised, discarded, and invented to meet the needs of the project. Participants often broke out of their assigned roles, contributing in unplanned ways. Productions regularly switched back and forth between stages.

Consider the making of Ruth Wakefield. Ariel didn’t start with a script but instead first focused on her vision of the final product—a black-and-white video with music that matched and enhanced the visuals, as well as no dialogue. Next, she chose the appropriate tools to meet that vision. She then selected a cast and crew that could fulfill the necessary roles and use the tools effectively. Such a group included actors who could, with their bodies alone, communicate the story; a cameraperson capable of capturing the scenes; and a musician of some sort to create the original score. Last, the participants developed protocols that were appropriate to their situation. For example, because Ruth Wakefield was a silent film, the crew discovered that there was no need for the iconic command “Quiet on the set!” As a result, Ariel directed her actors while they were acting (“Now reach in the cabinet...”). In addition, Ariel communicated with her cameraperson in the middle of shots, coordinating action with camera movement. Some obstacles, such as the custodial staff vacuuming in the room, were no longer a problem, and the crew efficiently filmed through the noise. The unique context caused us on the crew to break many of our conventional protocols on how shooting was done—some of which came from my previous filmmaking experience that I shared with the students, and some of which came from students’ own preconceptions of filmmaking gleaned from portrayals of moviemaking in TV shows and film.

Innovation and experimentation creates equity

The multiple authors of Ruth Wakefield had ample freedom to contribute new ideas and experiment with writing processes. The creation of the music score demonstrated how writing processes were influenced by the skills and limitations of the particular authors involved in the production. Our original plan was to get a piano major from the university to improvise the score in one pass, but our plan fell through when a cut of the film was not available in time for the student. With our big “premiere night” only a week away, I offered to do the score myself. With little piano experience, the task was going to be a challenge, and improvising a wonderful piece in one take was impossible. The process I chose reflected my limited ability with the tools.

Similar to how she directed the actors while shooting, Ariel gave me guidance on creating the music score by watching the final cut of Ruth Wakefield